2 Belgian bishops want debate on priest celibacy

Brussels, Belgium - Two Belgian bishops openly questioned mandatory celibacy for Roman Catholic priests, rekindling a debate Monday within the scandal-hit church.

The bishop of Hasselt, Patrick Hoogmartens, and his counterpart in Bruges, Jozef De Kesel, said in separate comments that married men should not automatically be excluded from priesthood.

The comments come amid the scandal over sex abuse among the clergy which has shaken the Belgian church to its core. Some have questioned whether celibacy is in part to blame and have called for the rule to be rethought. The Vatican insists celibacy isn't responsible and has defended it as nonnegotiable, even as the number of priests around the world continues to decline.

A spokesman for Archbishop Andre-Mutien Leonard, the head of Belgium's Roman Catholic Church, said in reaction to the two bishops's comments that any discussion of structural issues surrounding the church should be held at a global level, and not be limited to Belgium.

Pope Benedict XVI has staunchly defended celibacy, saying in June that it is a "great sign of faith."

However, in Belgium and other countries, celibacy has been linked to the shortage of new priests in Europe's parishes and to the sex abuse scandal.

Even though the Hasselt bishop said that abolishing celibacy would not solve the problem of abuse, he did see a possibility for married priests to serve alongside those who vow celibacy.

"I can imagine two sorts of priesthood. Those who live celibately and those who have a relationship - are married," Hoogmartens told VRT radio.

Over the weekend, the new Bruges bishop questioned whether the church should stick to mandatory celibacy.

"People for whom celibacy is humanly impossible should also have a chance to become a priest," he said.

De Kesel became Bruges bishop after his predecessor, Roger Vangheluwe, admitted that he had sexually abused a nephew of his for years when he was a priest and bishop. Vangheluwe was forced to resign in April.

In a report released in Belgium this month, hundreds of sex abuse victims disclosed harrowing accounts of molestation by Catholic clergy in the country over the past 50 years.

The Belgian church then acknowledged widespread sexual abuse over the years by its clergy, and pleaded for time to set up a system to punish all abusers and provide closure for victims.

Leonard's spokesman, Juergen Mettepenningen, said the celibacy stand of the two bishops should be taken in the context of the current abuse scandal. But he insisted that both bishops put an emphasis on the need to care for abuse victims first, saying Leonard also considers that the church's priority now.

Celibacy has become an increasingly touchy issue over the years, despite Benedict's steadfast defense.

Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn has said the matter should be discussed. Earlier this year, he declined to publicly criticize a local bishop who had said it should be up to priests to decide whether they want to live a celibate life and that he would welcome it if married men could be ordained. The bishop also said the ordination of women should eventually be considered.